Photo credit: ingentus
As a six year old boy, Austrian native Jan Zazgornik asked his parents, “who among our relatives is a boss?” The answer was: nobody. Though his doctor father – originally from Poland – was the head of a hospital department, no one in his family was an entrepreneur. But somehow, Jan knew what lay ahead for him in life.
A soft-spoken man who looks much younger than his 37 years, Zazgornik doesn’t strike one as the boss type. Yet he didn’t hesitate to start his own company, without any previous entrepreneurial experience, immediately after obtaining his PhD at Vienna’s University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU).
Ingentus is shortfor “INtelliGente ENTscheidungs UnterStützung” (intelligent decision support) – a field that develops algorithms and programs software to improve information management for a variety of businesses. In Latin, ingentus means “huge.” While the 2012-founded company is poised to become so in the near future, currently it consists of only the two Jans working out of a Viennese co-working space.
Upon completing his secondary school, Zazgornik found out about BOKU’s Wood and Fibre Technology programme, which takes up where forestry leaves off – in other words, everything that happens after the trees are cut down. “It sounded interesting to me,” recalls Zazgornik. “There was a business part, a technical part and an ecological part. The education was quite broad.”
He focused on the technology part for his Masters and PhD research, developing algorithms to improve transportation of wood products from the forest floor to retail store. However, what made for interesting research did not necessarily translate into a marketable product. “The forestry market may be huge, but it is more conservative and there isn’t a big market potential for us.”
His research efforts were not wasted, however. A fellow researcher at BOKU, Patrick Hirsch, who was working on similar solutions for the home health care field, had contacts with the Austrian Red Cross and had received funding for his research projects. Zazgornik joined the effort. “It sounds very different, but from a technical point of view it’s very similar. They both deal with routing vehicles so that costs are minimised,” he explains.
After finishing his PhD, he decided to start a company to market their research findings. He knew that, “there was a good chance to monetise our research in the home health care field,” which includes big Austrian NGOs such as Red Cross, Caritas and Volkshilfe, as well as many smaller private services throughout Austria and Germany. So he and three other university professor colleagues, including the head of the institute, Prof. Manfred Gronalt, partnered to found ingentus.
[INiTS] mentored us through the initial stages of business development–how to set up the company, how to present the product, work out an USP, stuff I never had to do before.
They pitched their idea to INiTS (Innovation into Business), the Vienna-based academic-spinoff accelerator, and were accepted into the programme, which gave them not only funding for the first year but also “mentored us through the initial stages of business development– how to set up the company, how to present the product, work out an USP, stuff I never had to do before. They also helped us to refine our pitch,” says Zazgornik. This paid off when ingentus was awarded an aws (austria wirtschaftsservice GmbH, the Austrian federal promotional bank) PreSeed grant.
Since its founding, ingentus has been in intensive development mode. In order to prove the cost-saving potential of their idea to potential customers, they have amassed data and analysed the structures and needs of three home health care agencies in Austria. By cooperating with the primary software provider for these agencies, they have positioned their product not as a replacement for existing software systems, but rather as a plugin. “Our API enables their existing scheduling software to automatically produce comprehensive daily schedules,” explains Zazgornik.
Home health care services present more complicated logistics than in other fields, for example typical delivery services. “Several types of caregivers provide diverse medical care and basic home care support,” says Zazgornik. “The nurses need to know which clients to visit and in what order. There are certain time windows for different tasks to be fulfilled. Each task must be matched by a caregiver with the proper qualifications. The driving times must be minimised to reduce costs. Our product is a web service that calculates the schedules in realtime and integrates them into the customer’s existing systems and user interface.”
After a long period of development, ingentus is now in the implementation phase and plans to complete its first reference project this fall. According to Zazgornik, “The larger organisations take a long time to make decisions on such a big investment and they want to be sure that it works properly.”
[O]nce we get a reference customer, everything will change. It’s a small field and word gets around easily. We are about a half-year away from getting real traction.
Concurrently, they are ramping up their marketing efforts in Austria and Germany. “We’ve started the sales process a year ago through cold calling potential customers, but it was very hard to get an appointment with the decision makers. The resistance comes because they think they already have everything they need – sometimes they have just recently implemented a new software system and don’t want to start anything new again. But once we get a reference customer, everything will change. It’s a small field and word gets around easily. We are about a half-year away from getting real traction,” believes Zazgornik.
While they are focusing on the home health care field right now, Zazgornik believes there is great potential for adapting their product for many other fields, as well: “We are cooperating in another university research project in the area of risk management, e.g. making sure supply chain needs are met in flood-prone areas.”
With half of their PreSeed money spent, ingentus will have to keep the company afloat through its cash flow – no additional funding or investment is being sought.
Up to now, Head of Technology Jan-Alexander Adlbrecht has been the only employee, but ingentus will soon be adding staff for customer support and expanding its sales force. Adlbrecht also studied at BOKU and was previously a consultant at econsult, a logistics business, but now enjoys the wider scope of his work at ingentus. “This is what I’ve always wanted,” he explains. “In my previous job, I only got to work on narrow tasks, but now I can be responsible for an entire project – actually three projects at the same time – A to Z.”
Zazgornik enjoys the freedom that his six-year-old self imagined a boss would have. What that child probably didn’t anticipate was the onerous responsibility that comes with being alone at the top. “In the beginning it was easier not think about the company 24/7, but now it changes and it is almost impossible to stop thinking about work.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with aws
If Michael Moser’s long hair makes him seem more likely to be the guy standing behind a mixing board at a rock concert than in a PhD-level research lab, this might be explained by his studies of both Sound and Electrical Engineering – a combination Masters programme offered by the University of Technology and the University of Music & Performing Arts in Graz, Austria. “I’ve played piano since I was eight, but never professionally. But this programme was 70% about electronics and physics and 30% about music & arts,” says Michael, who chose a study path that blended both worlds.
As a research assistant during his PhD candidacy at the Technical University, he ended up in a workgroup alongside fellow student Thomas Schlegl under the guidance of Professor Hubert Zangl at the Institute of Electrical Measurement and Measurement Signal Processing. The three conducted research on autonomous sensor technology and introduced their concepts through the university as an employee-invention agreement.
The team of eologix; Photo credit: Scienepark Graz
The product they designed looks like a large Band-Aid – a self-adhesive sticker no more than 2mm thick with an embedded, solar-powered electronic sensor and transmitter. It requires no complicated installation or assembly and sends its data wirelessly to a remote receiver.
The aviation industry seemed to be an natural potential customer for the stick-on sensors, which can be configured to measure temperature and surface-ice buildup. However the certification process for aeronautic applications can easily take up to ten years or more, so the team looked for additional applications.
In 2012, they took part in an idea-generation contest at the Science Park Graz – the local AplusB incubator centre. A quirky idea emerged out of Thomas’s hobby: volleyball. He noted that frequent arguments arise about whether the net is first touched by a hand or by the ball, and they thought that their sensors could be used to make more accurate foul calls than a referee could. Their idea won first prize.
With the grant [from aws], we managed to implement field tests with mill owners and manufactures of turbines. We amassed a lot of data and experience…
Though they eventually patented the volleyball-net idea, they put it aside (until recently). Instead, they found a potentially more lucrative application in the emerging field of renewable energy. “By chance I received an e-mail invitation for a green-energy conference and we thought that our sensors would be ideal for use on wind turbines,” Michael explains.
Through their discussions with wind turbine operators and manufactures, they learned that the existing methods for detecting ice on turbines – a condition that decreases their efficiency, increases mechanical fatigue and endangers nearby people and property – are imperfect. “The advantage of our sticker-sensors is that they can be applied anywhere – even on existing mills – at any time and without any special qualifications or expertise.”
What surprised Michael and his team was that none of the big players in the field were attracted enough to take their idea and develop it themselves. “They were slow to catch on, so this enabled us to secure our patents and develop the product ourselves,” Michael says. Through Science Park Graz, they learned about the aws (Austria’s federal promotional bank) pre-seed grant program for high-tech projects. In 2013, they crafted a business plan and submitted their application that June. While waiting to hear the outcome, they continued their research work without any outside funding until, by the winter, each partner had left the Graz University of Technology.
By December they learned that their aws High-Technology pre-seed grant had been approved and the available funding (up to 150,000 euros) would support adequate testing of their prototype product. They founded their company, eologix sensor technology gmbh in August 2014.
Photo credit: eologix
“With the grant, we managed to implement field tests with mill owners and manufacturers of turbines. We amassed a lot of data and experience and are adapting our findings,” Michael explains. “Without the aws grant, we couldn’t have gotten so far so quickly. We would never have been able to afford having as many systems in the field by using only our own money.”
Beyond the financial support for their research, the grant also helped add credibility to their efforts. Michael believes that “our potential customers could see that our concept and business plan have already been analysed and approved by an official organisation, and we weren’t just some guys with a big idea.”
Now that the pre-seed stage is complete and they have positive test results, the team is actively trying to acquire customers – both wind farm operators and turbine manufacturers. The largest growth markets are Germany, Sweden, France and Canada. Michael and his partners are busy writing proposals for new funding, seeking private investment and getting their product known in the industry by networking through interest groups. “Depending on how many orders we receive in the next few weeks, we will know our production volume,” Michael says. “We are prepared for a rapid scale if necessary.”
We are prepared for a rapid scale if necessary
The product’s application in to both renewable energy and high-tech fields would seem to make it an attractive target for outside investment. Nevertheless, the founders are not limiting themselves to the green energy field. “Among potential investors, there are two opinions about this: one group always tells you to keep focused on your main market and make it great, while the others demand a broad spectrum of possible opportunities.” says Michael. “But we are doing both: investing time in making our product better and also keeping an eye open for other market applications.”
Those potentially include sensors for monitoring large bridges and buildings. “It appears that such environments are less harsh than on windmills, so it shouldn’t be too much work to adapt the existing system to this application,” believes Michael. Another option involves ensuring humans and industrial robots do not collide while working together. The volleyball net idea remains simmering on the back burner, and in principle it could be applied to line calls in almost any sport.
This story is brought to you in partnership with aws
Dr. Iris and Dr. Andreas Filzwieser met while studying non-ferrous metallurgy at the Montan University in Leoben, a city in Styria, Austria. Out of necessity, they learned quickly how to work hard without much sleep and how to communicate with each other openly and efficiently. These lessons proved to be essential for their future success.
Soon after Iris received her PhD, she realised it would be nearly impossible to find a job giving her enough flexibility to manage her home life with three children. She resolved to start her own company. Andreas quit his company job and together they found Mettop GmbH, a university spin-off, in 2005.
Mettop is short for “metallurgical optimisation”. The company has patented technologies for metal-smelting furnaces – replacing potentially dangerous water-cooled processes with an innovative ionic cooling system – that make them far safer and more efficient. Today, with a staff of 13 scientists and engineers, sales agents on every continent and some 50 industrial clients, they are generating annual revenues of about 2 million euros and are profitable. Still based in Leoben, they continue to develop new solutions for the non-ferrous metal industry and are growing at a steady rate.
We thought we knew enough, but found out quickly that we knew nothing about being entrepreneus Iris Filzwieser about first steps
Neither Iris nor Andreas had had any previous entrepreneurial experience. “Both Andreas and I gained some business knowledge throughout our studies. We were always completely responsible for the whole project – not just for the research side, but also for the financial and legal matters. We thought we knew enough, but found out quickly that we knew nothing about being entrepreneurs,” she admits.
When the couple learned about the Academia plus Business (AplusB) initiative and its academic spin-off incubator in Leoben, the Centre for Applied Technology (ZAT), they applied and received a combination grant-loan award for 70.000euros. This, combined with their own savings, enabled them to found Mettop about ten years ago.
“We were very excited about being accepted into ZAT,” recalls Iris. “We set up our office there, taking advantage of the infrastructure and administrative services offered.” While the funding enabled them to survive during the first year of research and development, as well as to travel around the world rounding up business, “the biggest advantage of ZAT was its network,” she says. “It was possible to get a variety of people around the same table. We got the valuable business, financial, and legal support we needed, participated in different types of free on-site seminars, and it was possible to get one-on-one counselling.”
Mettop is short for “metallurgical optimisation”. The company has patented technologies for metal-smelting furnaces – replacing potentially dangerous water-cooled processes with an innovative ionic cooling system – that make them far safer and more efficient.
By their second year of operations, they already had enough contracts and customers to finance their business through cash flow and did not have to find additional sources of investment. This has only changed recently when, in April 2015, the CEO of KTM, Stefan Pierer invested 1.25 million euros for a 24.9% stake in Mettop. Iris explains that “Stefan also studied Metallurgy in Leoben, so when we pitched him our technology, he was easily convinced of its potential. He contributes more than just his capital. He brings his big network in other industries and is helping us to find other uses for our cooling technology, such as casting systems for automobile production and the steel industry applications.”
Over the years, Mettop has also hired several students from the university, one of whom became a partner for two years. He is now the General Manager of a spin-off company they started together called Urban Gold, which has a patented new technology for recycling metal from scrap electronics waste.
In many companies, especially in the Austrian culture, managers are afraid to show their true feelings about each other, but this isn’t the case with us.
Urban Gold was not the Filzwiesers only new daughter concern. In 2010, their fourth child was born, a girl this time. The Filzwiesers have managed to become a tight working unit both in the office and at home. “When we started the company together, everyone – friends, customers, bankers – told us it was a bad idea and that we would be divorced after a few years of working together,” Iris remembers. “But, in my opinion, the power of our partnership is stronger than with non-married partners.”
For many, it seems inconceivable to merge one’s domestic and professional relations so intimately and not let one damage the other. However, Iris couldn’t imagine doing it differently: “Of course, we had our doubts along the way. It wasn’t always so comfortable but required about two years of hard learning, how to work together and live together without letting discussions get emotional.”
Iris observes that “In many companies, especially in the Austrian culture, managers are afraid to show their true feelings about each other, but this isn’t the case with us. We always take the time to reflect and give each other critical feedback. If he weren’t my husband, I would probably never tell a partner or boss that I thought he did something stupidly or should have done it differently.”
Likewise, being business partners has helped them communicate better about personal matters. Unlike many other married couples, “We’ve always had to discuss every aspect of both our business and private life until we came to a decision or resolution. As business partners, we never say yes if we don’t mean it, and this extends to our personal lives. We’ve learned to be completely open with each other and always agree on a way to work together.”
Sometimes it is necessary to go new ways; Photo credit: Mettop
Ever since she was still working on her PhD, Iris has followed a gruelling schedule starting at 6:00 am and ending 20 hours later. In between, she juggles her domestic and occupational responsibilities. How does she keep up her stamina? “There is no option for burnout. With four kids, you have to be much more relaxed and flexible. My children actually prevent me from getting burned out. They ground me and show me what’s really important. Our kids are proud of their parents and are happy to have more freedom than their peers.”
Because 99% of Mettop’s customers are abroad, Andreas travels frequently, leaving Iris with the lion’s share of housework and management of the headquarters in Leoben.
“One of Andreas’ biggest talents is listening to our customers, learning about their problems, and then converting this knowledge into new project solutions. He can give me a call when he’s traveling and I can manage the technical work here. It only works because we share the technical expertise and both speak the same language. That makes it much easier to communicate, whether it’s about business or private affairs,” Iris says.
With the recent inflow of capital, Iris and Andreasare ambitious to keep growing and diversifying. They have no plans to step back from actively managing the company. “We plan to increase our revenue and double our staffing to become a well-established mid-sized technology company.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.